This story is copyright © 1998 Samuel Marshall. All rights reserved. May not be distributed without permission of the author.
* * *
Bran strained as hard as he could, his small muscles bulging in their place. The plant moved slightly, he could feel it. Quickly he stopped, worked at the ground with a small metal fork to further loosen the earth, and then grasped the thick stem once more. This time - finally - the weed came up easily in his hands, roots and all.
He sighed, allowing himself a brief moment of rest. The hard work was not entirely necessary; in truth, the crops would survive the few weeks until harvest-time without further human intervention. Or even half-human intervention. But little else occupied the villagers' time, and if Bran did not work he would be seen as shirking. In any case, out here there was time to dream; of the old times when there were gods on Krynn, causes that seemed worth fighting for, and heroes that seemed worthy of respect. Sturm Brightblade, Caramon Majere, and - especially - Tanis Half-Elven, Bran's own particular hero from his favorite saga, legends he'd heard a million different times in a thousand different ways. But would Tanis have spent his life toiling in a field? Would he have lived in a village whose populace were distrustful of a single half-elf, never accepting him as their own?
"Hey, Bran," came a distant call, footsteps rushing towards him, and his spirits lifted. He mentally adjusted his last thought; except for one villager, one who trusted him and who did not, he knew, participate in snide comments behind his back. He turned now to watch her, running from the little cluster of houses that centered the fields and were all that he knew as home.
Jennifer was young like him - fully human, she had actually lived only half his years - and pretty like a sunflower, dark-tanned face within waves of bright blond hair. She worked on the fields with everybody else, but exuded boundless energy, a small child's excitement and delight at even small things. Some had described her as half-kender, intending insult, and the phrase had only pleased her more.
Bran smiled a welcome, but her responding expression was cautious and worry edged into his mind. "What is it?" he asked, after waiting a few seconds so she could regain her breath.
She gestured at the sky. "It's almost sundown; you should come back in."
"There's more, though."
Jennie reached out for his spare hand, took hold of it - it was muddy, but so too was hers - in reassurance. "Walk back with me."
Together, they retraced her steps of a moment ago, though at a somewhat more leisurely pace. The sun's light was beginning to shade orange and pink, casting a warm glow across the golden cornfields and sparkling from the small lake past the village. Beyond that were hills that swiftly became tree-covered mountains, their green assuming a strange clearness in the colored light. Even the bare cliffs and peaks seemed less desolate than their normal gray, belying the fact that in only a few months snows of winter would settle on those same mountain-tops, taking up residence until spring.
"The elders are calling a meeting," Jennie explained finally. "They're worried that no travelers have been here for a month or more."
Bran nodded. Although the village wasn't on any trading routes - the trail through here only serviced a few other tiny hamlets - smaller traders still came occasionally, to supply the village with items it could not produce. If the trail was blocked for some reason, then the village elders would want to deal with the situation before it affected the transport and sale of harvest surplus. But that wasn't enough to explain Jennifer's mood. He stopped walking and waited.
"They're sending someone out to see what's wrong," she muttered, looking down.
Bran suddenly understood. "Oh! You think they might choose me?" Although he'd spoken in surprise, the prospect seemed interesting, a change from the normal work and a chance to exercise some of his other skills.
She nodded, flushing. "I know they'll choose you. I overheard my father talking. But I also know why you'll be chosen."
"My skill with weapons," Bran hazarded; he'd long ago bested even the smith - Jennifer's father - who taught all the children swordplay and archery. Several times the half-elf had proved his worth against raiding parties of goblins or desperate, starving human outlaws.
"That's what the council will be told." Her voice held a neutral tone, but her hand squeezed his a little tighter. And then he understood, completely. He sat down in the mud with a bump, losing her grip altogether.
"You mean..." He didn't even say it. She meant, there were two reasons why he was being given a potentially dangerous task which - in any case - would certainly see him away from the village for some weeks. The first reason was that he was a half-elf and therefore expendable. The second reason was Jennifer.
She looked at the dirt beside him, glanced at her already mud-spattered clothes, and evidently decided sitting down beside him would do no further harm. Hesitantly she put an arm round him, though he did not respond.
"I knew they felt this way," Bran said finally, "but it still hurts." It hurt that people who had no reason to quarrel with him, who would pass him on the street with a friendly hello, who would stand and chat with him if their ways passed in the fields - it hurt that these people, his people, from the village where he lived and had always lived, were simply acting out a mockery of cordiality. In reality they disliked him, didn't trust him, and damn sure weren't going to let him get too close to one of the prettier young women of the village. And all for a pair of pointed ears.
"I know," Jennie said, her voice low with shame. She wouldn't cry, she never cried, but she reached out with her other arm and pulled him into her embrace.
"It's not the way they feel that bothers me so much, it's the pretense," Bran said indistinctly. He was crying, a little, head buried in her shoulder as she held him tightly and in silence. But she understood. He knew she did; she always understood.
After a few minutes, the half-elf felt a little better, enough to regain his composure. He wasn't sure how Jennifer felt; it was hard to tell. But she released him with a sigh, and they got to their feet.
"We're late for the meeting," Jennie said, gesturing towards the village hall that hosted such occasions. Its wooden walls - most of the buildings were constructed in the same manner, with timber provided by the forests to the north - shone red in the last rays of sunset.
Bran nodded, uncaring. They both knew what would be said. What did it matter if they weren't there to hear it? Even so, he trailed the young woman as she made her way over to the barn-like building, slipping in through its back entrance towards the sound of voices.
"Why, Bran," an elder interrupted the proceedings as they entered. "Just the person we wanted to see-"
The villager continued, but Bran took no notice. A few minutes ago he would have believed, or fooled himself into believing, those words. Now he knew for certain the hollowness which lay at their root.
* * *
Bran shouldered his pack, getting to his feet once more after a brief rest for lunch. It was three days since he'd left the village - left well-supplied and armed, with the theoretical blessing of most of the village, and the genuine, heartfelt blessing of at least one, which had to count for something in these godless days. Thinking of it, he smiled; in front of half the village - gathered before they started work to see him leave - Jennie had made him promise to return safely. She had kissed him lightly on the cheek, and then on the pointed tips of both ears, in a rather obvious rebuke to the assembled villagers.
And, though he hadn't noticed at the time, she had slipped into his pocket a small device, a six-sided bronze coin with strange markings on either side in a language which looked like elven but wasn't. Wrapped around the coin was a note; "This was your mother's; your father and mine gambled once with it as stake, and my father won. In truth, I stole it mostly from spite, but in any case it should be yours. Call it a good-luck token; it has little other purpose."
He was grateful for her wishes, but the little coin with its not-quite-elven writing - half-elven writing, he thought in cynical amusement - made him think of his mother. And he did not think of his mother. So he had put it away in a safe, inside pocket and there it would stay, out of sight and out of - damn, Bran muttered silently, I'm thinking about it now, aren't I?
Resolutely, he shifted his concentration back to the road ahead. The trail generally followed the lowest route available, twisting and turning to avoid the hills and mountains which sprang skywards all around. Here too it ran along the base of a valley, near a small trickling stream that, in spring, would become a roaring deluge of meltwater. But the stream did not bother Bran. What bothered him was the narrowness of this valley, and the tall grass that smothered its slopes. A band of attackers, the half-elf thought nervously, could lie in wait and never be seen until far, far too late...
Unnerved by the image, he went to the side of the valley and began to climb it. A bold, brave hero, he chastised himself, would have continued straight through, not wasted hours in overcaution. Tanis Half-Elven, of legend and of Bran's own aspirations, would not have pandered to his own fears, jumping at shadows. But Krynn now was a darker reflection of its previous self; there was no place for heroes, and the primary concern of today's small, young half-elf was his own skin, not the fate of the world.
It was some minutes before he reached the top; when he needed to make it, the journey downwards would be far, far quicker. Here the grass was shoulder-high, nurtured by the same bright sun and plentiful rain that had ensured such a good harvest back home. Progress was fairly easy, though a little slower than on the dirt-track at the valley floor, and he was leaving a very clear trail. But it would only be visible to somebody up in the slopes, coming the same way, and he had no reason to fear of any unwanted followers. There was a clear view of the valley floor, which would give him plenty of time to duck down out of sight if it became necessary.
After half an hour of uneventful travel, Bran heard the sound of horses approaching round a curve in the valley. Quickly, without thought, he went down to a crouch beneath the grass. He shifted along until he found a taller patch and knelt behind that, watching the valley floor through breaks in the greenery. The slow, measured hoofbeats - only a single horse, he realized - gradually came closer, and instinctively he drew his sword, holding it carefully below the grass but ready to move if necessary. He laughed at himself silently - he was well hidden, whoever was down below would never see him, and even if by some chance they did, it would take them several minutes to climb the steep grassy slope. He was still acting like a frightened rabbit. What a -
And then there was a tap on his shoulder. Instantly he swung round, sword at the ready, his heart leaping into his throat.
The woman dodged back a step. She was armored, mostly in leather but with chain in parts, in a sort of protective patchwork quilt - probably what she could afford, upgraded when she had the money. Her hair was dark, cut short like a boy's, and it crowned a tanned, expressive face. Brown eyes darted about as if to track the very insects that buzzed around, and her small mouth curved in an expression somewhere between contempt and exasperation. "Relax, fool. You're quick, but if I had meant harm, you'd also be dead."
Her voice - kept low but sharp for all that - stilled the half-elf's motion, and he suddenly noticed a tiny scar that decorated the woman's right cheek as if it were a beauty mark. "Who are you?" Bran asked quietly, regaining his poise a little. "And what do you want?"
She snorted. "The same thing you do. But I've watched that wagon, and there's two who might be capable of guarding it. Together, we'll do much better against them, and we'll share the gains equally. All right?"
Confused, Bran couldn't say anything for a moment, and she seemed to take that as assent, crouching beside him to peer through the cover of the taller grass. Obviously she'd thought that the half-elf, hidden in cover on a high slope and waiting for an approaching wagon with his sword drawn, had been intending an ambush of his own - not an unreasonable assumption - and so she'd factored him in to her own similar plans.
"Here they come!" She whispered it quietly from the corner of her mouth, her full attention on the road below. "We'll wait until they're in position."
He should say something, he knew. He certainly couldn't help her kill innocent merchants, bringing supplies to his own village. Somehow, though, the force of her personality held him silent. He didn't feel strong enough to go against her plans; he felt swept along by her sheer will. Tanis would never have allowed this, he berated himself. He would have confronted the woman right away, not fallen in with her like a common brigand! He would...
But then it was too late; the wagon was almost directly below them. It was a small trader's vehicle, a wooden base covered in a high arch of fabric to protect the goods and those inside from inclement weather. One man sat up in front to control the single horse, and presumably the other was inside.
"On my mark," the outlaw whispered to Bran. "Three... two... -"
And then there was a commotion on the valley's opposite slope. Four fully-armored men charged out from hiding in the grass, and stormed downhill towards the wagon. The half-elf could only stare, but his new-found companion made a deep noise in her throat, like a growl. Bran glanced sideways to see her face contorted with a dark glare.
"Knights of Takhisis," she almost spat. She was right, Bran knew; now he remembered the uniform. Of course, they weren't really working for the old god any more, but for the local dragon overlord, Beryl. They would normally collect taxes from villages like his, but it was too far out of the way to be worth their while.
"What-" he started to ask, but she wasn't listening.
"I'm afraid this means a change of plan." She spoke with dark intent. "I'm going to kill some knights. And maybe protect that wagon; any enemy of theirs is a friend of mine. You can do as you choose."
She jumped up from hiding and dashed down the slope, leaving Bran bewildered and shocked. What... He shook himself. It was clear what Tanis would have done now, and maybe, just for once, he could live up to it. He half-ran, half-fell to the road in the brigand's wake.
* * *
Finally Bran slipped his sword through the opponent's guard, cutting deep into the heart. The surprised look in the knight's eyes as he slumped to the floor, dead but for a few seconds, thrust a twinge of guilt; it hurt the half-elf worse than the numerous scratches and one relatively serious cut he'd sustained.
But he didn't have time for that now. Breathing heavily, he looked around. The man who had been inside the wagon - actually an elf, probably a Qualinesti, but Bran hadn't had time to wonder at that - had just dealt with his opponent, who appeared to have been some kind of officer. One soldier had been killed in the strange woman's first mad charge. And the last enemy...
The remaining knight screamed in pain. He had been disarmed, knocked over, and now the outlaw woman stood over him, carefully inserting her bloodied sword into the gaps between his armor. As Bran watched, horrified, he saw her choose another spot, bring the blade down slowly, and - once it was inside - tilt it from side to side, rocking it around, putting her weight behind the weapon. The knight gave another agonized scream.
"Stop that!" Bran shouted, rushing towards the woman and her tortured victim.
Calmly she obeyed. "Perhaps I should save some for later..."
The half-elf felt his gorge rising, and held it back with some effort. He looked down at the knight; he'd been meaning to ask some questions, but one sight of the terrified face and staring, pain-bleached eyes told him little sense would be obtained. In any case, this man - who clearly wasn't going to live - needed to be put out of his misery as soon as possible. Bran reached down with his sword, intending to slice across the throat -
But his blow was intercepted. The outlaw grabbed his arm. "I will do that," she said firmly, and bent over the man. If she tried to drag it out, Bran promised himself, he'd stop her, kill the man right away. He couldn't let such torture continue, whoever the victim.
She finished him cleanly, though, using a small, razor-sharp dagger from her belt. As he breathed his last she stood over him, looking down on the knight's dying face with a beatific smile.
Bran winced and turned away quickly. He wiped his sword clean on a patch of grass and then went over to the Qualinesti, expecting a lukewarm welcome. Although he'd never met a full elf, his mother had told - he had heard - that most were disdainful of half-breeds, mistrusting them in much the same way humans did, only more so and for the opposite reason.
But the man smiled at his approach. "Hello, Bran. Thanks for the assistance, although your human friend seems a little... over-enthusiastic."
"She's not-" the half-elf began, then stopped. "How did you know my name?"
"Oh, I'm sorry. I've put you at a disadvantage." Apologetically, the elf bowed in human fashion. "My name is Guillano."
"That doesn't sound like an elven name," Bran muttered, trying to pull himself together.
"It isn't. I've lived among humans for some years and found it convenient to adopt a version more suited to their language. But, let me come to the point."
Please do, Bran thought. And make it quick, before I die of confusion.
"We've come out this way searching for you, or more generally for any surviving offspring of your mother. But we heard about you from-"
"I don't have a mother," the half-elf interrupted flatly.
"Indeed you don't," Guillano agreed, looking at him strangely. "She met her death some years ago, shortly after leaving your village."
"Who killed her?" It was the outlaw who posed the question, drifting into the conversation.
"Never mind that!" Bran said angrily. "Get back to the point. You were looking for me..."
"I was looking for you," the elf confirmed, raising his eyebrows to acknowledge Bran's rudeness, "in connection with an item of your mother's - yes, yes, you don't have a mother. With an item of hers. A small bronze-"
And suddenly Bran knew what was coming next. Fate, or the gods-that-weren't, made it inevitable. "A small bronze coin, six-sided, with writing in some strange script," he finished.
"You know where it is?" Guillano breathed, leaning forward and staring intently into Bran's eyes.
The half-elf looked away uncomfortably. "I have it right here."
Glancing back, he wasn't prepared for the look of greed that ran across Guillano's face. Involuntarily the elf's hands made a grasping motion and he hissed, "Where? I must have it!"
Nervously, Bran backed off. It seemed that this was the second dangerously insane person he'd met that day. Probably it would turn out the wagon driver was a couple of dray-horses short of a full team, too... but no, he'd run away when the fighting started. That suggested a certain degree of normality.
"Why did the knights attack you?" he asked, hoping that changing the subject might calm the elf down. "And -" this was the question he really should have asked right away - "why were there only four of them? A full talon is nine."
"Myself and Sandy split up a few days back." Guillano, his manner returned to something like normal, anticipated the next question. "Sandy's a human sorcerer, he has the other piece of the item you hold. We were both coming to find you, but when we realized the knights were after us, we decided to split up. As it happened we'd just met a silversmith who was sympathetic to our cause, and I borrowed his wagon. He left with Sandy, the idea being that from a distance they'd think he was me and follow only those two. Evidently the knights weren't fooled."
Bran nodded; the Knights of Takhisis weren't usually stupid. They tended to be better disciplined than most forces around these days, and quite reasonably trained too - he winced, remembering the pain he'd until now suppressed.
"I'll bandage your arm," the outlaw offered, noticing his expression. "You're dripping blood, anyway." She pulled a wound-dressing kit from her pack and bound his cut tightly; it didn't hurt any less, but he was no longer bleeding. Not a serious wound, though it would certainly leave a scar. Neither of the others had been hurt even that badly.
"Why don't you sit down inside and we can talk over a glass of wine?" Guillano suggested when they were ready.
Bran shook his head. "Let's deal with these bodies first."
"We should leave them there," the outlaw said vehemently. "As a warning."
The half-elf sighed. "No, we'll have to make an effort to hide them, or when they're found the knights will take it out on any local people they happen to come across." Like my village, he added silently. "You help me, and we'll carry them uphill a way."
It was a shame the stream wasn't deep enough to hide these, he thought, as himself and the woman manhandled the heavy bodies one at a time up the valley slopes. They didn't drag the corpses, hoping to leave a smaller, less obvious trail. If rain washed away the blood, the hiding-place might even work.
"They'll be found anyway," the outlaw said, looking at him with a piercing gaze.
"Probably," Bran admitted quickly, not wanting to think about the possible consequences for his village. He changed the subject. "What's your name?"
"Katryn. Most people call me the Cat, though, after my stealth; I'm good at creeping up on people."
He remembered the way she'd surprised him on the hill, and nodded; remembered also, with a sick feeling, how she'd treated the knight. "And because you like to play with your kills?"
"No!" she said firmly. Paused. "Knights are... special."
That was a relief. Perhaps this one was only crazy on a fairly narrow band, Bran thought, and then caught himself. The rest of the time she's just fine, for an outlaw, brigand, thief and most likely murderer.
They finished working in silence and went back to the wagon, climbing up into the back and under the awning just as it started to rain. Drops rattled on the roof as they jammed themselves into seats around the cramped little table that formed a centerpiece of the scene. The silversmith's wares were stored in racks which faced outward, towards the waterproofed cloth cover, and this room was between the backs of those racks. It was tiny but homely, smelling of wood and the tar which kept water from soaking the roof.
"Wine?" Guillano offered, holding out a jug ready to pour. He included the human woman quite happily, Bran noticed; evidently he had been living amongst that race for a while, as whatever their feelings for half-elves, the Qualinesti and their Silvanesti cousins were united in a disdain of humans.
Katryn accepted, but Bran shook his head. "Ale if you have it, please." He had a low tolerance for wine, and tonight he did not care to be made drowsy.
That provided, the elf began his story. "I will tell you now, Bran, why I need the item you possess.
"Essentially, it is my plan to defeat Beryl." He ignored their gasps. "Long research revealed that a magical artifact might once have existed to protect its user against both the deadly breath, and the powerful magic, controlled by such a beast. It was made around the same time as the dragon orbs of recent legend, but by the mages of good alone, and it proved insufficient - unlike the orbs it affected only a single creature, and was not of much use in the great dragon battles of the time. So the experiment was abandoned as a failure, and the mages of all three orders worked together to create the more powerful orbs.
"But one such item had already been made. In order to reduce the risk of its falling into the wrong hands, it was split into two components. The first, a staff, was given to a Silvanesti mage of the time. Its history need not concern us, but suffice it to say that I have tracked it down with the help of the human sorcerer Sandy. The other part was given to a Qualinesti. In this way it would be possible for the Conclave to retrieve the item - since they could command both mages - but difficult for any other, since the Silvanesti and Qualinesti rarely associated.
"I have traced the descendants of that Qualinesti mage, until I finally found record that your mother's -" he stilled Bran's protest with a wave of the hand - "your mother's father had owned the coin, which powered the device. Then, since his other children are now dead and could not be traced, I had to hope that your mother was the one with the item. I since found that she too had died, and my last hope was that you held it."
"Only since three days ago," Bran muttered. He waved away Guillano's querying look. "Never mind." If Jennifer's father knew about the power of this item then she had probably got rather more trouble than she'd bargained for, but the chances were that he had no idea.
Katryn yawned ostentatiously. "Thanks for the history lesson. So what do you plan to do to Beryl?"
"Why," the elf said, looking a little nonplused, "go and confront it, using the item, and defeat it." His voice gained a harder edge towards the end.
"That's the plan? All the plan?" Bran asked incredulously, staring in shock.
"Yes, half-elf," Guillano said harshly, momentarily forgetting his manners, "that's the plan. Now, give me the coin."
Bran laughed. He hadn't meant to; immediately he stifled it, but too late. Guillano's face darkened in anger and he got to his feet, standing over Bran. His sword was free of its sheath and live in his hand, a visible threat. "Will you give me the item, half-elf, or do I have to take it?"
Without a chance to draw his own weapon, the young half-elf didn't know what to do. He tried to stammer a response while considering his options. The elf would be on him before he managed to back the chair away from the table, so he couldn't easily run. He froze where he sat, indecisive. Before him, Guillano's scowl grew fiercer and the elf drew his sword-arm back a little in a preparatory motion-
"Not so fast, elf," the Cat warned, mimicking Guillano's emphasis. Unnoticed in her place to the side, she'd quietly moved to interpose herself, sword in hand; she stood taller than either of the others, a cool, menacing presence. "Back off. Bran, get to your feet."
The elf's eyes flashed with anger, but he did as she said. Bran got up too, freeing his sword. He glanced at the woman in some surprise - why was she protecting him? For a brief moment their eyes met and he saw his expression mirrored; she didn't know either.
"Thanks for the information, Guillano," Bran said. "I think you know my answer. Goodbye."
Cautiously, he backed out of the wagon, the Cat beside him. The elf made a strangled sound, dropped his weapon with a clatter. "Wait! I mean you no harm - all I want, need, is to kill that dragon!"
Bran blinked. He stared into the wagon more carefully, in case he was mistaken. But no, the elf really meant what he was saying. Suddenly, something inside him snapped. He was fed up, up to the very point of his ears, with all these crazy people. Somebody was going to have to talk some sense into the idiot. And right here, right now, it was going to be him.
"You don't want to kill the dragon!" Bran shouted. "You want to throw your life away in a pointless, stupid gesture so that you can pretend you're killing the dragon when you won't even see it past guards and traps. And for what? Some crazy obsession. You don't even care about all the suffering and pain the dragon's caused, all you care about is yourself and your damn stupid suicide mission! Quit acting like a spoilt child and grow up!"
He regained control of himself while the elf was still daunted by the outburst, and added in a more normal tone, "And if this coin is as you say, then fine. Perhaps I'll take it to somebody else who can make good use of it. You can get yourself killed just fine without its assistance."
There was a long pause, silence making way once more for the thrum of raindrops. Bran suddenly realized he was standing half out of the wagon, the back of his head and his long hair dripping with rainwater. He stepped inside.
"You're right," Guillano said in a very small voice, "you're right." Slowly the elf put his head in his hands and began to sob.
Irresolute, Bran stood still for a moment. But then, he thought to himself, he was already wet. Rainwater, tears, what did it matter? He went around the table and gently held the elf for a long time, until the crying stopped.
* * *
"Basically," Bran explained, "it's because Beryl killed his lover, some years back."
"Yeah?" the Cat said, uninterested. She shrugged, a catlike shrug that was barely visible by the new moon's light, but clear in the red of Bran's night-vision. "It happens."
Bran wondered what he was doing out here, with her. The rain had mostly stopped, leaving fresh, clean air that smelt of lush growth and bright promise. It was a warm late-summer night, and the few small water-droplets that still fell were a smooth caress to his face, a gentle massage to the top of his head. He wished he could remove his leather armor and relax.
But they were on watch, and relaxing would be foolhardy. Earlier in the evening the wagon-driver had returned, along with the horse which he'd soothed and retrieved from some way down the valley. It had been too late to set off, so they'd decided to camp in place for the night. After a hurried meal, Bran had decided that they should take double watches in case the other five knights found them; first himself and Katryn, then Guillano and Jonah, the driver. He had no idea why he was making the decisions, but the elf - after Bran had shouted at him earlier - seemed to want to be told what to do, and the Cat refused to decide anything remotely communal.
"Why are you still here?" he asked quietly, his eyes tracking the surrounding countryside. "You've got what you came for. The knights are dead, so you've fed your little obsession."
She ignored the criticism and, so it seemed, the question. "Back when I found you - you weren't going to attack the wagon, were you? You're not a bandit at all."
"No," he admitted. "I drew my sword because I was scared."
"Thought so. Right little goody-two-shoes, aren't you?" She sighed. "I don't know why I'm here, this isn't my style at all. I thought maybe it was because you're really pretty cute." She stopped, grinned at his surprised glance. "Well, you are, you know. But it's not just that. I think maybe there's a part of my mind that always knows what's best for me. Normally I tell it to fuck off and leave me be, but this time it seemed serious. So... here I am."
Uncomprehending, Bran changed the subject, wanting to confirm something he'd suspected for a while now. "Are you the reason why traders don't visit my village any more?"
She laughed quietly. "Very probably. Don't worry, they'll soon catch on that I've left the area."
Bran didn't know what to say in response to her admission. He could tell of the annoyances and hardships she'd caused in the village, but he knew her well enough by now to realize that she wouldn't care. So he said nothing. They stood in silence for a while, silence broken only by the gentle patter of continued rain and a soft, sighing murmur of wind. Out in the valley, nothing moved.
"Girlfriend?" the Cat asked finally.
"Fair way away now?"
"I guess." He tried to bring Jennifer to mind, finding the task strangely difficult. "She's pretty, with-"
"Gods!" The Cat - Bran couldn't think of her by her actual name, in the dark like this - shook herself violently, spraying rainwater from her armor. "Don't tell me how wonderful she is. Men!"
The half-elf fell into a confused silence, and concentrated on checking the surrounding area until it was time to change the watch. Exhausted, he fell asleep almost immediately in the driver's bunk; the last image in his mind before all vanished was the Cat. Prowling.
* * *
"Were you noticed?" Bran asked, as Katryn fell into step with him along a busy thoroughfare. They had walked beside the wagon all day, keeping a fast, unforgiving pace in order to arrive here before nightfall. A few miles outside town, Guillano had given a prearranged signal for the silversmith and the human mage Sandy to come out of hiding; the craftsman, reunited with his wagon and its driver, should now be on his way towards his original destination. The remaining four had, on Bran's suggestion, split up and come into town individually, each mingling with a different group of travelers to enter the gates.
Katryn shook her head. "I don't think so. The guards didn't seem to pay any special attention." She scanned the streets around them intently; watching her, Bran thought she seemed nervous, as if she didn't like to have city walls between her and the freedom of the wilderness. To an extent, he shared that worry; it could only be a matter of time before the remaining knights realized they'd been given the slip, and carried out a search for travelers matching Guillano and Sandy's descriptions.
"We'd better find that inn. The Dragon Bones." It was the agreed meeting-place; Sandy had said fairly-priced rooms were normally available there. After an entire day of grueling travel, Bran was ready to collapse, and he hoped the inn was nearby. Unfamiliar stone buildings, cobbled streets, and shadowy alleyways confused his villager's senses, seeming unnatural in their complexity.
But the pair reached their destination easily enough, by the simple expedient of following other people. Two false trails led to disreputable-looking taverns, but the third attempt met with success. The Dragon Bones Inn stood at the end of one street, past a row of shops that were closed up for the night. It had seen better days - its painted sign was sun-bleached and peeling, and the window-shutters suffered from similarly poor repair - but it glowed with welcoming light and, inside at least, appeared to be well cared for. About two thirds of the tables were occupied, mostly by people enjoying an evening meal, and towards the back of the large common room Bran could see the others of their group.
The half-elf made his way through the room, Katryn following. Their entrance caused a slight stir, which alarmed Bran until he realized that non-humans were probably rare in these parts; it couldn't be helped, and the hood he'd worn to hide his ancestry at the gates would hardly be suitable indoors. Still, the attention made him nervous. He hoped that fear wasn't obvious for all to see.
"Greetings," Sandy welcomed them, as the two newcomers sank into chairs with some relief. "I trust you had an uneventful journey."
Bran nodded cautiously. The tall blond human - he was of a height with the Cat, which was tall, at least by half-elf standards - possessed a firmly-developed manner, an outgoing way of speech that was friendly and direct but at the same time tightly controlled. Nothing was revealed of the man's feelings or emotion unless he so intended, and even that information often seemed to exist only in the subtext. Bran wasn't sure whether or not he liked the sorcerer. In their previous discussion, Sandy had seemed honest and firmly moral - more so than the half-elf. But his self-control was such that, a nagging worry suggested, it could all be an act.
The Cat scowled at Sandy. "Did you get rooms?"
She had taken an immediate dislike to the man, hardly surprising in the contrast of attitudes. It seemed to be mutual, but the sorcerer was more subtle.
"Yes," he confirmed easily, "but only two. You'll have to share, I'm afraid; you can draw lots for the bed." He held out a key towards her, but she didn't take it; after a slight, uncomfortable pause he placed it on the table for the woman to retrieve. Sandy shot a glance at Bran; it read "are you sure you want to trust this half-feral female?"
He did trust her, though - well, he trusted her not to slit his throat in the night, at least. It wasn't a rational decision; logically he should keep well away from the woman, who was after all a dangerous criminal with some degree of psychopathic and sadistic tendencies. A hero of old, he thought, would not be associating with such undesirables. Tanis Half-Elven would not have trusted in the vagaries of luck for the pointless risk of allowing this woman close-by. But here she was and here he was, and there was nothing he felt like doing to change it.
"I'll go straight to bed, or floor, whichever," Bran said. "I'm exhausted. We can talk in the morning." He got to his feet, wincing at already-stiff leg muscles.
Shrugging, Sandy pointed the way to their room, apparently the third door on the left after climbing a flight of steps. Bran turned to take the key from the Cat, but she shook her head and stood up in a smooth, combined motion. "I'm tired, too."
Bran said a cordial goodnight to Guillano and the sorcerer - Katryn obviously didn't feel the need for such pleasantries - and they went upstairs. The Cat's key unlocked the specified door and they found themselves in a small room with a bed, a tiny window, a candle lamp, and precious little else. Bran lit the lamp and turned to ask- and then he was taken aback, because the Cat had moved very close to him in the dimness, so that his face and hers were only inches apart.
"Who gets the bed?" he asked awkwardly. He could almost feel the warmth of her skin across the small distance.
She said nothing for a moment, then reached out and laid a hand on his arm. Bran almost jerked it away but, for some reason, he didn't. He shivered a little, seeming like a cornered rabbit.
"Just how exhausted are you?" she asked, close by his ear. "Only, if you would like..."
"No!" Bran almost squeaked. With some effort, he brought his voice back to normal. "No. I'll take the floor."
There was a pause. "You're sure?"
He wondered which she was asking about, but nodded anyway. After a moment, she released his arm and stepped back a little, then began pulling off some of her armor so she could sleep. Bran took blankets from his pack and arranged them on the wooden floorboards, lying down uncomfortably. Finally Katryn was ready and she snuffed out the lamp before climbing into bed.
Bran's heart-rate gradually settled back to normal, but it was longer still before he managed sleep. His mind would not let him rest; had she really meant what he'd assumed, or had she simply been offering to let him take the bed? His thoughts alternated between regret at not finding out, a feeling of virtue since he had resisted temptation, and an amused irony at the combination of both. And the memory of a warm, too-brief touch.
* * *
"So none of you know anything at all about the dragon's lair," Bran summarised. He took a spoonful of porridge and winced; it was still too hot, burning his mouth. For a moment he paused, blowing air in a rather undignified attempt to cool it. Hopefully one of the others would take over the conversational lead... but they sat silently, waiting for him. The group were gathered around a table in the Dragon Bones, enjoying - or not - the provided breakfast.
Finally the half-elf was able to continue. "Do any of you know of someone who might have useful information?"
Katryn shook her head and Bran found himself admiring her economy of movement, the way she held her poise, the... Her eyes caught his and he blushed, looking away. What was he thinking of? This woman was cold, callous, an outlaw and murderer. His Jennifer was warm and kind, intelligent and wise.
And she trusted him, he reminded himself. That hurt, a chill sliver of guilt. He hadn't yet broken that trust, but in all self-honesty he knew it was only a matter of time. Would Tanis Half-Elven, Bran's own personal hero of stories and legend, have treated the one he loved so poorly? Of course not.
He sighed. It was time to stop, he decided firmly. To stop comparing himself with great figures from the days of old. He could never match up to their strength of body, mind, or purpose. And times were different now, there was no place for such heroes in the new age; no place for selfless idealism, gallant adventures, daring rescues. In a Krynn ruled by dragon overlords, such bright hope no longer applied, and - perhaps - weak, ordinary people like himself were all that remained in lieu of heroes. Goodbye, Tanis, he thought. I guess I'm on my own now.
The Cat coughed meaningfully, bringing the half-elf back from his reverie. He remembered he'd asked a question, had a vague feeling that the human mage had answered it. "I'm sorry, Sandy, could you repeat that?"
The mage nodded, raising his eyebrows. "As I said, there is a man in-"
A stentorian knock on the inn's outside door interrupted the sentence. The innkeeper ran past their table to answer it, almost knocking over a chair in his haste. They all heard the demand in firm, military tones. "We're looking for two travelers, an elf and a tall, blond human male-"
Grimly the companions glanced at each other. Then, as one, their gaze came to rest on Bran. The half-elf thought, why me? What am I supposed to know that you people don't? But he couldn't say that. They were relying on him. For some reason, ever since he'd shouted at Guillano, he'd been making the decisions and these people needed him to do that again, right now. Luckily he had happened to notice something earlier which could help their situation. The inn had a back door.
Bran got quickly to his feet. He pushed the chair back under the table - absurd in this situation, he realized afterwards - and looked back at those who watched him. The adventurous days of old may be past, he thought, but at least - with luck - we four can survive.
"Come on," he said, wondering how many times he'd say those same two words in the future, and - more grimly - how long their future would last. "We'll go out through the kitchen."
Back to index